Study Shows How Losers Can Be Winners

Head Baseball Coach
Rider University

LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. — Elite programs are built by elite coaches.

On Sept. 4, 1989 in their annual college football preview, Sports Illustrated labeled Kansas State as Futility U and America’s most hapless team. And for a good reason. At that point K-State football had collected over 500 losses – the most ever by a Division I program.

The Wildcats hadn’t won a league championship since 1934. Nor had they won a bowl game and had only played in one. Also consider they had not won a game in their previous 27 contests.

Enter former Iowa assistant coach Bill Snyder as head coach.

According to Snyder, K-State was the greatest challenge of his professional life.

In his Nov. 24, 1988 press conference, he boldly declared that “the greatest turnaround in college football history exists here today.”

Snyder, the visionary, held to his word transforming K-State into a national power on two separate occasions over his 27-year head coaching career.

Kansas State won two Big 12 championships and participated in 19 bowl games. His teams finished the year ranked in the top 20 a remarkable 13 times, and 18 times his teams won more than they lost.

It is the greatest example of transformation, leadership, and culture change in collegiate athletic history and how an elite coach can build an elite program.

So, the question is how do perennial losing programs become elite and remain elite?

The answer is a simple one – hire an elite head coach. An elite head coach can be characterized as a serial winner, an excellence seeker or an outlier among outliers.

They thrive on coaching and winning.

To illustrate the importance of winning, over 200 NCAA Div. I head coaches in college’s most popular sports, football, men’s basketball and baseball, were replaced by university administrators from 2015-2019.

The last three years during that 5-year span, 88 of those were head baseball coaches.

Although the reasons for coaching changes vary, there is little doubt we operate in a win-now climate. Too many losses and not enough wins lead to change.

To further examine this climate craze, it is imperative to know and understand program transformation and the principles of sustainability.

The Study
A qualitative study was designed to assist in finding those key principles by exploring the leadership approaches of nine elite NCAA

Division I head baseball coaches who have transformed a perennial losing program into a recurring winning program.

Framed by leadership, coaching and culture change, the findings would provide university administrators, stakeholders and search firms a guideline for identifying and selecting an elite head coach and ultimately transforming the existing program into a consistently winning program.

To uncover the common themes required to transform a losing program into a winning program, nine purposely selected elite head baseball coaches participated in one-on-one, face-to-face audio-recorded interviews.

The nine participating head coaches combined to win 7,316 games (current total), six national championships and collectively amassed 188 years of head coaching experience.

The semi-structured interviews asked 11 questions centered on two research questions:

  1. How do elite coaches (you) describe your experiences of transforming a losing program into a winning program?
  2. How do elite coaches (you) describe the importance of creating and maintaining the culture to support the transformation?

The study revealed five common themes found among elite coaches and their programs.

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